Five Redeeming Qualities Of Delta SkyMiles

Earlier this week, Ben wrote about his recent experiences flying Delta, and the marked difference in quality of service when compared with American Airlines. As expected, the post brought out a flurry of comments, not only because the question of better is always subjective, but because the topic of Delta always seems to bring up a natural conundrum that many frequent flyers face: Do you prioritize the in-flight experience or the ability to redeem miles? 

With Delta, the two goals may appear to be in direct conflict with one another. And I’m not saying that Delta is perfect – one need look no further than their recent system crash for confirmation of that – but they do seem to offer a consistently better in-flight experience for many of their customers. Ben has written about this topic. So has Tiffany. And Nick. And I’m sure I’ll weigh in soon enough myself.

Anyway, I’m not here today to debate the merits of Delta, so much as I’m here to provide some consolation to those road warriors who have consistently prioritized their in-flight experience over their mileage net worth.

No, there isn’t a super-secret backdoor way to Cathay Pacific First or Singapore Suites, but there are some halfway decent redemptions and features, if you know where to look. Here are five that particularly stand out.

An easy-to-navigate search tool

First and foremost, mileage currencies of any kind only hold value when they’re actually usable. To their credit, Delta’s award flights are always easy to search – if not always particularly valuable. Their calendar shows the best availability, day by day, including taxes and fees, for up to five weeks.

In a way, Delta’s award calendar kind of makes me think of what online dating is probably like these days – you might get rejected immediately, but at least you know where you stand:

Even with their five-week award search being somewhat buggy on their new website, their one-week calendar is easy enough to navigate (if not always the bearer of good news):

Moving on

And award searches on the app, while not quite as robust, are pretty easy to navigate no matter what your ring size measures:

Swipe left for Delta One?

If we’re comparing apples to apples with the big three airlines, in all fairness, United’s search is pretty comparable – and they’ll provide every possible combination of Star Alliance flights on offer:

But anyone who has ever opened up the American Airlines, British Airways, Japan Airlines, and Etihad Guest websites in side-by-side tabs while waiting on hold for an hour with an AA agent and pouring themselves a stiff drink knows that searching for AAdvantage award availability can be nothing short of painful.

And don’t even bother trying to search for awards on the AA app, because you can’t.

So Delta has an edge here, at least when it comes to their award search technology. 

Last-minute international awards

While Delta’s last-minute domestic “SkyMiles Deals” page may leave something to be desired (read this first if you’re thinking of booking) they do often have intriguing deals for international flights — particularly in economy.

Their current award sale features deals for as little as 46,000 SkyMiles from the U.S. to South America. This isn’t bad – and previously, we’ve seen 50,000 SkyMiles round-trip from the U.S. to Australia, and even lower fares to Europe.

Now, I know that some of us are just here for the champagne and caviar, so these particular awards might not float your boat. But I do want to remind you that when it comes to long-haul economy, you could be doing far worse than Delta’s Main Cabin. Their 777s remain in the desirable 9-across configuration, their food and drink are plentiful (if not always particularly appetizing), and their in-flight entertainment selection is abundant enough to keep you prepped for both the Academy Awards and the Emmys.

Slightly dated, but the gist (and width!) remain the same

Best of all, they’re pretty transparent about these award sales and often release space in droves – I’ve gotten itineraries to price out for as many as nine tickets at a time. So while this may not be the glamor redemption, it sure is serviceable if you’re looking to move people large distances en masse.

And if last second award bookings are your thing, it’s worth noting that Delta does not charge close-in ticketing fees, regardless of status. The same can’t be said of United or American.

Business class to Asia for 85,000 SkyMiles

Depending on your travel patterns, this is probably one of the most high-value redemptions you can get for SkyMiles. And while some of these awards book on the less desirable mainland Chinese carriers – like China Southern and China Eastern – there are some better options available if you know when, and where, to look.

China Airlines business class

For example, if we’re using the same mid-November example, China Airlines has award availability on their SFO-TPE flight almost every day:

As a matter of fact, this option seems to be pretty consistently available throughout the year.

That said, if you’re looking for onward travel in Asia, the China Airlines flight appears to go away. While award availability may look good at first glance…

…you’ll notice that the taxes and fees jump up from $5.60 to $121.60.

These higher surcharges are a dead giveaway that the flight is operated not by China Airlines, but by one of the less-desirable Mainland Chinese carriers.

The good news is that these connecting award tickets on China Airlines often can be booked by calling the airline directly. And if all else fails, I’ve also had luck finding award availability out of Vancouver’s YVR, which may be helpful if you’re Seattle-based or don’t mind the positioning flight:

Finally – and I know that this isn’t realistic for many of us – award availability skyrockets when you book as far out as possible. Even the elusive JFK-Seoul unicorn route on Korean Air’s business class opens up if you book far enough in advance:

This is August 2019, the furthest out you can book at the time of writing.

So while it’s not always intuitive, there is still decent award availability to Asia if you know where to look. Just make sure to check your tickets once you get the confirmation email.

Intra- (east) Asia business class awards

It’s no secret that SkyTeam is, in many ways, the “leftover” airline alliance – we’re not exactly getting a massive demand for tips on how to redeem miles for business class awards on Air Europa or Saudia. But SkyTeam’s greatest hits seem to be highly concentrated in East Asia, and include the likes of Korean Air, Garuda Indonesia and China Airlines.

While award redemptions on these airlines may be tough to find to and from the U.S., there is no shortage within Asia. For example, here are some one-way business class redemptions from Tokyo to Singapore for next week, which price out at 40,000 SkyMiles and 3,210 Japanese Yen (about $28 USD):

Just to provide another example, here is a sample search for early November flights, from Seoul’s Incheon airport to Bali:

Don’t worry, 28,000 South Korean won is only about $25 USD

Be sure to select the nonstop option in order to experience Garuda Indonesia’s business class – and to avoid the connection in Guangzhou on China Southern.

It’s definitely worth noting that a lot of these products will offer regional cabins and service, which won’t quite compare with their flagship products, but there are far worse ways to spend 40,000 SkyMiles than for seven plus hours in Garuda Indonesia’s business class.

Garuda Indonesia A330 Business Class (Source: HolySmithereens)

Especially when compared with intra-European business class.

Anyway, this 40,000 number for one-way business class seems to hold true throughout East Asia, and seems to be readily available regardless of search date.

Long-haul business class outside of the U.S.

While these awards will really only help a certain percentage of readers, this is where things start to get really interesting. Because when you search for SkyTeam flights through Delta’s site that originate and terminate just about anywhere in the world outside of the U.S. (and Canada), it’s almost like SkyMiles becomes a completely different program.

Like, “Don’t tell Ed Bastian” different.

For example, here’s an incredibly popular route – Sydney to London’s Heathrow (LHR). I decided to really test out how the chips would fall, and selected one of the most popular weekends of the year – the weekend after New Year’s Day.

And while the weekend itself is blacked out, the Friday before, the Monday after, the Tuesday after, and the Wednesday before, are all available for 90,000 SkyMiles one-way in business class:

Sure, most of the itineraries above involve two connections, and a leg on China Southern, but you’re looking at 90,000 SkyMiles for one-way business class for an incredibly popular itinerary.

On one of the busiest travel weeks of the year.

For what is, ostensibly, saver level pricing.

(Side note: one will never know what the term “saver award” on Delta truly means, thanks to their lack of award chart, but this seems to come pretty darn close).

I can’t even get economy SkyMiles awards from South America to the U.S. to price this low for that week.

Just for fun, let’s look at another example. Here is Auckland to Zurich in February because 1. It’s ski season in Switzerland (but not in New Zealand) and 2. It’s fun to check out an A to Z itinerary:

Again, you are looking at two connections – and again, flights all price at 90,000 SkyMiles for one-way in business class.

In case you’re wondering (and I’ll spare you the screen shots, but you can search for yourself), the same price holds true on direct flights from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle to Santiago, Chile. Flights from Heathrow to Singapore drop to 80,000 SkyMiles (aside from Christmas week) and flights from Australia to Southeast Asia consistently price at 70,000 SkyMiles for one-way business class.

In summary, SkyMiles can provide great value if you have no need to set foot in the U.S. 

I know that this doesn’t help much if you’re based in Atlanta or Cincinnati, but if you’re an expat sitting on a stockpile of SkyMiles, or you know you have an itinerary that doesn’t originate or terminate in the U.S., you may have some options that you weren’t even aware of.

Bottom line

Look, if you’re searching for easy-to-redeem saver availability out of New York in business class on Thanksgiving week, or fulfilling a lifelong dream of caviar and duvets in the sky, you’ll have to look elsewhere. And I certainly don’t expect any American, United, or Alaska (jealous!) loyalists to jump ship just for the SkyMiles.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention somewhere in here that flying Delta doesn’t have to mean earning miles exclusively with Delta. From sign-up bonuses to shopping portals, there are plenty of other ways to rack up miles quickly. Heck, I’ve even traded in my Delta Platinum American Express card for my Chase Sapphire Reserve when booking Delta flights, thanks to their generous trip delay coverage and triple points for travel purchases.

All that to say that airline loyalty programs don’t necessarily have to equal airline mileage currencies. 

But if you’re already wed to Delta and looking for a decent use of those SkyMiles sitting in your account, there may be some options out there worth a second look.

And searching for award tickets from Europe to Australia sure beats kvetching about 300,000 SkyMiles one-way awards.

What are your favorite uses of SkyMiles? 

Comments

  1. One underrated piece of the puzzle here is that I am finding a ton of pretty good values on domestic coach itineraries these days. It’s not glamorous but I’ve seen itineraries, even around the holidays, pricing out at 1.5-1.8 cents per mile vs the coach cash fare, and you’re still eligible for Medallion upgrades on the mileage ticket (though you can’t use RUCs or GUCs). AA and UA will occasionally have better values on certain domestic itineraries but DL seems to produce higher value a greater share of the time for those types of trips.

  2. ” while waiting on hold for an hour with an AA agent ” AA has automated call back when its ur turn.

  3. One thing I’ve run into when trying to book a CI award is that if I add a segment beyond TPE, it won’t price at 85,000. For example, I booked SFO-TPE in December in Business for 85,000. If I searched SFO-HKG, my actual final destination, CI doesn’t even show up as an option despite O being available on both flights. If I call to get the TPE-HKG segment added, it refares to a much higher price.

  4. Steph – glad to see you posting again!!

    Saying that Delta “has no close in booking fees” is misleading. In most cases, Delta charges far more miles for close-in bookings. For example, ATL-SFO coach nonstop for today is 68,000 miles; it drops to 31,000 miles for flights at least 2 weeks out. If you include connecting flights it is still 68,000 miles today, drops to 20,000 miles two weeks out. By comparison, a United nonstop today is 12,500 miles.

    Bottom line – Delta often charges hundreds of dollars in close-in booking fees in the form of additional miles for the award.

  5. First, thanks for pointing out the better redemption rates on awards booked far out. I wasn’t aware of that so I definitely learned something there.

    I think most folks want biz class on long haul fights so that they are able to relax and rest. All the other stuff I receive in biz class is nice, but it’s not why I’m willing to pay more for that seat. The whole champagne and caviar thing is neat, and it’s a novel experience I hope to share with others, but for me, it’s definitely not my decision driver.

    My frustration with Skymiles is the oftentimes absurd award redemption rates. 500,000 Skymiles for a oneway ticket is bad. I don’t see those kind of rates with AA or UAL. I tweeted at Rene this week that it’s interesting to me that most of my paid travel is with Delta, but most of my award travel is with other carriers. This is primarily because I live in ATL and do a lot of domestic travel for work.

    You make some interesting points about searchability, and I agree, DL is top notch there, but I’ve learned how to naviagate AA’s site even from my phone and I can find what I’m looking for on the AA site as fast as I can on the DL app. I did have to do some exploring to figure it out though.

    I have flown with CAL now 2 times on a DL redemption. That is (IMO) the best (non-sale) redemption of Skymiles, and the CAL B777 seat is probably better than DL biz class seats (except the A350). You can sometimes find space on the JFK route at 85K too, but in my experience, the SFO route is usually the most available.

    I’ve been thinking about my relationship with DL a bunch lately. In Atlanta, it just doesn’t make sense for me to try to consistently use another carrier, but I wish I had the option.

  6. Props for the attempt but I feel like this particular blog is trying to justify DL by talking in circles.

    You talk about how expensive awards are on DL and that you can search for awards on the DL app but then you come back with this… “And don’t even bother trying to search for awards on the AA app, because you can’t. So Delta has an edge here, at least when it comes to their award search technology.” So I have the ability to search for it on DLs app but will pay 1million miles for the ABILITY to search it or I cannot search it at all within the AA app!? Is that a positive point for DL? That seems like hardly a win in my book.

    And then you say…”But SkyTeam’s greatest hits seem to be highly concentrated in East Asia, and include the likes of Korean Air, Garuda Indonesia and China Airlines.” So I have to use my miles in Asia!? What about any of the other continents, including America…where DL is based? That would be great! That hardly sounds like a win for DL.

  7. Nothing wrong with coach redemptions, but at that point the fixed value open-bucket programs easily outclass legacy-style restricted award space.

    Opportunity cost includes money-value in addition to time-value of work involved.

  8. Agree with Bgriff here. I think the biggest piece that you missed here in the otherwise-great article is the super cheap Domestic award prices that I’ve been seeing lately. On their Award deals webpage, I’m seeing SEA-BOS for only 15k roundtrip! I imagine pricing isn’t nearly this good on AA and UA.

    Also, this is petty but can you/Lucky please get a new picture of Comfort+ to replace the outdated Economy Comfort picture? There aren’t any Delta planes that look like that anymore, at least from my travels. A first world complaint, for sure! 🙂

  9. Props for the attempt but I feel like this particular blog is trying to justify DL by talking in circles.

    You talk about how expensive awards are on DL and that you can search for awards on the DL app but then you come back with this… “And don’t even bother trying to search for awards on the AA app, because you can’t. So Delta has an edge here, at least when it comes to their award search technology.” So I have the ability to search for it on DLs app but will pay 1million miles for the ABILITY to search it or I cannot search it at all within the AA app!? Is that a positive point for DL? That seems like hardly a win in my book.

    And then you say…”But SkyTeam’s greatest hits seem to be highly concentrated in East Asia, and include the likes of Korean Air, Garuda Indonesia and China Airlines.” So I have to use my miles in Asia!? What about any of the other continents, including America…where DL is based? That would be great! That hardly sounds like a win for DL.

  10. We use sky miles exclusively. We booked a trip to Scotland for 33k miles round trip per person. Hard to beat that deal!

  11. There’s some OK domestic 1st class rewards too. My wife and I are flying SEA to ORD. We had already booked award ORD to MAD on Iberia, so we didn’t have much wiggle room on our positioning flight, but even then Delta turned out to be our best option. My wife paid 22.5k miles for first, only one award ticket available, but that’s ok I paid about $360 cash and extended my Flying Blue miles for another 2 years.

  12. It’s great that you pointed out the Tokyo to Singapore/Jakarta routes. I found far too many people not realizing that they’re both as long as transatlantic flights.

  13. As a former SEA-based AS miles user (scored Cathay 1st to HK) I was loath to switch to Sky Pesos when I moved to MSP. But pleasantly surprised at availability, everyday pricing, and main cabin service for recent MSP-CDG RT. Now AF that serviced DL return flight at CDG, that’s another story (Psst DL: your alliance partner treats stranded DL pax like total strangers).

  14. @ J — I’ll stick with non-smoking airlines from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Thailand, etc. Chinese airlines suck because the pilots smoke on board.

  15. Delta frequently has 5,000-8,000 one-way fares from LAX/BUR to DEN/SLC. Since I live in LA, and mi kids go to college in Colorado and Utah, this has been a great perk for me. Also, they usually offer their Extra Leg Room seating for only 1.000-2.000 points more. Hated SkyMiles for a long time, but now, they are my go-to program for redeeming short haul flights.

  16. Don’t really agree with this post… diamond in NYC with desire to redeem miles for mostly biz class to China / Hawaii… compared to UA the partner flights availability is shit (talking about 85k tickets, with no stop in the U.S.), and all DTW flights are 300k. I highly recommend you look into UA. After 5 years DL diamond I’m actually 1K on UA this year as well, and love their redemption options!

  17. @J – Yeah, they really kinda do. The vast majority of mainland Chinese carriers, both with international longhaul and domestic short hop routes, lag far behind the rest of the world’s carriers when viewed qualitatively through the lens that this blog uses to rank airlines, based on a number factors. You’re either new here or don’t travel within China much.

  18. The funny thing is I am based in East Asia and consistently find great biz class redemptions for my wife. Just never realized that was an exception!

  19. Even though I can’t use any of these sweet spots, this was a super useful article Steph. Thanks for writing it.

  20. Great article! My favorite way to use DL Skymiles is by buying Pierre Herme macarons at the JFK skyclub in terminal 4. It’s the only place in the USA you can get them in and whoever I’m visiting or the clients I go to are always amazed and appreciative of the gift (especially those who love macarons!)
    Recently, my friend and I used 30,000 skymiles for JFK-LHR roundtrip in economy! ROUNDTRIP! I couldn’t believe what a deal that was… sure people will complain but JFK-LHR is relatively short trip that I don’t think flying in J or F really matters especially since I have access to the skyclub or VS clubhouse anyway even while flying in Y.
    I agree with others on the domestic award sales we have seen in recent months. I’ve seen JFK-FLL roundtrip for only 10k skymiles.
    I also agree with others that you basically mention to redeem DL skymiles on DL skyteam partners outside the USA since award availability on partners are widely available… but I believe that’s true for the other alliances too.

  21. @UAPhil – Thanks! I’ve been lurking around here some but my day job responsibilities took a toll this month. Hopefully more soon!

    You bring up a good point, particularly when it comes to domestic awards on Delta itself. There are certainly times when it’s better to hang onto the extra cash vs. the extra miles, although I’d definitely choose UA and the extra cash outlay in your example.

  22. @AJ – Fair points, and I don’t think anyone here at OMAAT would claim that SkyMiles hold greater value than, say, United or Alaska miles. Frankly, their slow devaluations over the years have caused me to shift my credit card spending habits in a not-insignificant way.

    That said, a certain percentage of us are going to continue to fly Delta, either because we are hub-captive or simply like the airline better. Which means we will continue to earn SkyMiles regardless of how strategic we are with credit card spend.

    The point here isn’t to sell you on reasons to earn SkyMiles – I’d probably be doing you a disservice if that was the case. But my hope is to shed some light on some higher-value redemptions for those of us who are going to keep earning SkyMiles due to our travel patterns.

    So, in summary: Love the airline, don’t love the currency, here are some better uses of the currency if you have it anyway. If that makes any sense 😉

  23. @DiscoPapa – Yeah, I hear ya. I’ll see what I can do (although rushing to the front of the boarding line for pics isn’t exactly my strong suit…)

  24. I booked one way business class DTW to DXB for 84,000 miles this December on Delta’s site flying AF. Granted I stop in London and Paris, but happy about the deal.

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